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By Anon
Anonymous poster
So, long time lurker here but recently acquired PPL sharing a recent minor event. In the grand scheme of things this was very trivial and entirely a non-issue, but the story is actually secondary: what I'm trying to do is ask what seems like a simple question:

In the event of conflict in the circuit - at various locations - just HOW should you give way in practice? Not who and not when, but how?

Early last week, I made a standard overhead join to my local airfield which is relatively busy with a FISO. Overhead, I struggled to get any message in because of the frequency clog, but while descending deadside I made my call and was informed of 2 other airfield in the circuit: one departing on a T&G, the other late downwind (which isn't relevant to this story).

As I completed my 180 turn to come back over the numbers to the live side, I had sight of the departing traffic climbing out crosswind. This was the first point I thought: there is a potential for conflict here, so I kept my eye on them, thinking that if they turned downwind I would make a right turn and fit in behind them.

As it happened, their crosswind leg continued...and continued...and continued...and they seemed to be departing from the crosswind and leaving the circuit. So, I turned downwind in the usual downwind position. Just before I make my downwind call, they come on the radio and also call downwind. Let's bookmark this as Situation (A).

So, now I have an awkward situation. I am - as far as I can tell - correctly following the circuit but appear to have cut up another aircraft already established in the pattern, except they are flying what seems to be a massive, oversized circuit and - in practice - appear to have turned downwind after I did, whereupon I no longer have sight of them. In actual fact, on checking FlightRadar after the flight, I'm pretty confident that their circuit was so big that their crosswind leg took them some way outside of the ATZ.

At this point however, my perception was that there is unlikely to be much conflict given that I turned earlier and I expect I am reasonably ahead of them. Not ideal, I accept.

By the time I am late downwind, however, I can see them at 4 O'Clock catching up with me. By the time I am ready to turn final, they have caught up with me and are flying what I estimate to be 0.5 - 1 miles off my starboard wing, circuit height. So, let's call this Situation (B).

I am on the radio at this point and advise that I am visual with the aircraft to my right and questioning to myself what to do. My working assumption was that - if they were already aware of me - that they would likely extend their downwind and so - in my head - I felt the best course of action was to make an early turn to final to try and get out of their way, given that at this point I was inside and ahead of them. I announce that this is what I am doing, to avoid conflict, report turning base, then I report final and land, only to hear them make a call that they are going around.

Now, strictly speaking, I am at fault here. I did not fit in with the established traffic in the circuit, nor did I give way by turning to the right, but I'm replaying things over in my mind because I'm not sure how I should have actually handled things in practice. The situation was not as simple and clear-cut as the rules sound and given my limited hours, not one I've really had much experience of (nor would time with an instructor help much, as it's pot luck as to what other traffic is around).

On the one hand, this whole situation would have been avoided had the other aircraft turned downwind at a reasonable point and hadn't flown such a colossal circuit that took them outside the ATZ. However, it is what it is. Looking at FlightRadar, it seems lots of aircraft regularly fly circuits that take them out of the ATZ (which is not what I was taught to do).

In Situation A, I felt that I was already live-side and so struggle to understand what options I had. I couldn't do an orbit live-side. I could have turned right, but I genuinely believed that the other aircraft was leaving the circuit and I was concerned that I might be needlessly following another aircraft on an extended crosswind leg for no reason, taking ME outside the circuit. In my inexperience, I felt that turning downwind was the best option to avoid conflict, but did not anticipate that the other aircraft would turn downwind at exactly the same time and then catch me up. I am very confident that I was in the downwind position when I made my downwind call and that they were in the downwind position a further mile out from the runway.

In Situation A, I wonder whether I should have completed my deadside turn and joined liveside further away from the threshold, rather than over the numbers, but then this isn't an overhead join.

In Situation B, I wonder whether I should have made a right turn to tuck in behind the other aircraft. But then, I would have been outside the ATZ and also possibly closer (behind them) than I was (inside them). I was still ahead of them and so - not to suggest that two wrongs make a right - strictly speaking had right of way given I was inside and ahead and they were overtaking on the right.

Anyway, waffle over. I appreciate that I was in the wrong here. In the end, there was no issue - I had visibility of the other aircraft at all times, but unfortunately - due to inexperience on my side - ended up cutting them up. But, given they were outside the ATZ, I'm doing my best to convince myself it was an honest mistake to make rather than a negligent one.

So, back to my question: if you need to give way in the circuit, HOW should you do it? Are there unwritten Dos and Don'ts? I'm less interested in who should give way to whom, but more how should you do it.

This incident has made me kick myself, but I'm really just questioning what I should have done and what others would have done too.
TopCat, JAFO, Aerials and 3 others liked this
By TopCat
FLYER Club Member  FLYER Club Member
This is one of the best articulated descriptions of a perennial problem that I've seen for a long time, coupled with a really good question. It deserves (and I'm sure will receive) some considered responses, not all of which, I suspect, will be uncontroversial (and if they are, I'll do my best to fix that :wink: )

I'm a bit embroiled in work now; I don't have time for a proper response at the moment.

What I would say is, there's no need to be 'Anon' for a question like this. I've certainly faced exactly this dilemma many, many times; it's always a PITA, and there's no really good answer IMO. I'll try and reply at greater length later.
FrankS, StratoTramp liked this
I’m afraid bomber circuits is a pet hate of mine.

AOPA says:
The correct distance between the downwind leg and the runway is that which will allow you to make a no-power landing should the need arise (usually, 0.5 to 1 nautical mile). In a low-wing aircraft, keep the runway near the wing tip. In a high-wing aircraft, you can keep it halfway up the lift strut as reference.

If an aircraft is outside the ATZ they aren’t in the circuit. Feel free to allow them to make their own arrangements to fit in when they re-join. Don’t give it a second thought.

The problem becomes, if you attempt to fit in with these people, they then continue with the misunderstanding that their circuits are ‘normal’! They need to be disavowed of that.

If people fly decent, predictable circuits, it’s easy to fit in behind them. If they don’t then I’m afraid the level of extra sensory perception required is beyond my small brain!

You did nothing wrong. If they flew their approach so close behind you they had to go-around, their airmanship is poor.
TopCat, JAFO, Rob P and 1 others liked this
The important words are

"you did nothing wrong"

Your awareness was good and I can't fault your thinking and analysis. In that situation I'd have flown the circuit, turning base early might be a good call, particularly if the set up is such that you can vacate at or near the end of the runway. Landing long means you can vacate more quickly, because you can be pretty certain that the "Lancaster" now behind you won't have the sense to make enough space.

Well done

Rob P
johnm, A4 Pacific, JAFO and 3 others liked this
By johnm
FLYER Club Member  FLYER Club Member
You were not at fault and took sensible defensive action, the only thing I might add is that you could make some additional position calls to reinforce your plan.

Having called "Downwind" you could supplement that with a "Late downwind" as you pass the threshold/numbers

You could then call "established left/right base" and then "final" as you did.

If they did a bomber circuit and then tried to turn in to correct they will become number 2 and be equipped with all the necessary information to position accordingly.
By TopCat
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I don't need to say most of what I was going to say now, as I agree with all the above, and @A4 Pacific has more or less read my mind.

Joining correctly overhead and then turning away from the circuit to fall in behind the other guy on the wide crosswind would actually be contrary to the rules of the air, as it would have involved turning in the opposite direction to the circuit while inside the ATZ. It could also have brought you into conflict with the next one taking off.

When it gets to the point where you have no idea if that dot in the distance is in the circuit or on a cross country, all bets are off I'm afraid, and the very most I'll do when there's someone much wider than me, is turn base early, expedite down base and final, and give frequent position reports as @johnm suggests.

Usually I'm off the runway before they turn final.

If they're only a little bit wider than me, then I'll practise my slow flight and let them go first.

TL; DR: I think you did absolutely nothing wrong. You can only give way to traffic in the circuit if it's in the circuit.

It doesn't stop them throwing a strop sometimes, unfortunately, which is why I said there's no good answer.
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By Cessna571
FLYER Club Member  FLYER Club Member
A similar thing happened to me at Old Warden.

I went what I call “verbose on the radio”, I call out everything I’m doing, presuming they don’t want to crash into me.

At my home airfield I have called “leaving the circuit to the south, I’ll rejoin shortly” a few times when things have got hectic and I’d rather just leave and come back than try and work out what people think they are doing.

I’d say you did everything you should/could have.
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By Morten
FLYER Club Member  FLYER Club Member
Agree with everyone that you did nothing wrong.

One thing I have done twice in situations similar to that is to ask tower/FISO if 'Are you aware of the intentions of the aircraft leaving the circuit to the south west?'
Not CAP 413 but once it got a slightly disgruntled "we're about to turn downwind" which at least told me what they were doing (and I went behind them) whereas the other time they said nothing and then appeared to slot themselves a good distance behind me.

In this case you say that they more or less overtook you on downwind? That, to me, sounds like either an extremely poor lookout (and a reason for you to overcommunicate as suggested) or rather poor airmanship on their behalf.
One thing I have done twice in situations similar to that is to ask tower/FISO if 'Are you aware of the intentions of the aircraft leaving the circuit to the south west?'

For me, that does invite the response you received. “We’re about to turn downwind.” Which rather then commits you to following them. Why put yourself in that position when they seem to be departing the ATZ? Just allow them to fly a rejoin when they’re ready. They shouldn’t put you in the position of clogging up the airwaves having to ask totally unnecessary questions.

Other opinions are of course available.
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By Morten
FLYER Club Member  FLYER Club Member
Indeed it does and it seemed to do more than that as it also made them turn. So I was happy to get the response and go behind them before they got even further away and me still not knowing what they were doing.
I'm not interested in shaving 2 minutes off my flying time but avoiding misunderstandings and potential mishaps - clarity (admittedly at the cost of clogging up the airwaves and some avgas) seems preferable to an uncertain situation or a decision made on unfounded assumptions.
By TopCat
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Morten wrote:..... but avoiding misunderstandings and potential mishaps - clarity (admittedly at the cost of clogging up the airwaves and some avgas) seems preferable to an uncertain situation or a decision made on unfounded assumptions.

I get this, but the mayhem that inevitably ensues with more and more people extending further and further crosswind and downwind in order to slot behind, becoming less and less visible, contributes at least as much to the risk of misunderstandings and potential mishaps.
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By Morten
FLYER Club Member  FLYER Club Member
Yes, of course. That's a judgement call to be made. Having said that, the 'it needs to be nipped in the bud' argument is a bit of a strawman as in reality, most airfields are not LHR and there is not an 'inevitable' neverending stream of arriving aircraft in ever increasing circuits ;)
E.g. in the OP there were 2 other aircraft in the circuit - not really full and noone behind the OP ...
I'm not interested in shaving 2 minutes off my flying time but avoiding misunderstandings and potential mishaps - clarity (admittedly at the cost of clogging up the airwaves and some avgas) seems preferable to an uncertain situation or a decision made on unfounded assumptions.

Really we are talking more about unresolved ambiguity than ‘misunderstanding’? Unresolved ambiguity is almost always bad! However here, the ambiguity is resolved the moment you turn downwind. They are then number two to you.

I totally agree with TopCat.

The ambiguity continues if you perpetuate the bomber circuit. The person joining after you has to ask where you’re going. The person after them has to ask. The student doing a touch and go can’t figure out where to ‘fit in’. It’s carnage.

Carnage to which everyone contributes by allowing bomber circuits to become normalised.

Or one person is allowed to fly the circuit they want (bomber) whilst everyone else continues to fly circuits that everyone else understands and expects? Where am I wrong?

Point of information. Nobody flies visual circuits at LHR! Visual approaches, maybe. :D :D
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By leiafee
FLYER Club Member  FLYER Club Member
Worthwhile one to think about.

I think if I encountered a speed differential thus that I was being caught up and potentially overtaken even though they were wide of me, my instinct would be to slow down even further and let them take the lead. Maybe modify the spacing by edging out a little myself.

If someone’s doing something outlandish then on balance I’d rather have them ahead of where I can see them than behind me where I can’t.

Communicate is well and good but if they’re already demonstrating a lack of visual awareness of everyone else’s position then I’m not trusting my life to the hope that their audio awareness might be better. I’m just going to avoid them by whatever means works.

That choice is of course informed by the fact I fly stuff which DOES slow right down really easily.
T6Harvard, Morten liked this
Super interesting read. I had something akin to this last week during my dual lesson - a faster aircraft coming up on my inside on the right downwind leg. Thankfully it was another instructor and we were aware of each other’s position , but I have been wondering since what I would’ve done if it had been an unknown aeroplane and I was solo.

My FI told me the correct action would be to get on the radio, report every leg for visibility and ask their position if unsure. But if you didn’t pick up the call sign, that’s going to be tricky. Even worse in a C150 where visibility down the right hand side is almost zero when you’re strapped into the left hand seat, turning right-base.

I think I’d possibly have slowed down to let them pass and extend my downwind if necessary to allow them through (and me give more time to spot them), and a call to let everyone know.